Depending on your age, when a gamer speeds on rail shooters or tunnel shooters, they’ll likely bring up Space Harrier or Star Fox as part of the conversation. Ex-Zodiac is a new game cut from the same cloth. Bringing the 90’s nostalgia into 2022, this solo dev game is a love letter to genre. What’s here in the early access release is superb and sets up a fantastic homage whilst keeping its own identity too.
In Ex-Zodiac you’ll be constantly flying forward although you can can boost forward or slow your pace down a little if you want to. You’ll have full freedom to move around the screen – this isn’t an on-rails shooter – but you’ll be constantly moving down a tunnel of a level. This means you can fly to the edge and slightly off the screen but no more and this is key because your enemies love to send return fire and if you can’t shoot em down first, you’ll need to avoid them. A main gun is on your ship for the usual shots alongside sparing used bombs to clear the screen. Your gun is upgradable to a laser or just in power but upgrades didn’t feel like a huge focus for the game.
Instead, Ex-Zodiac places emphasis on a Race for the Sun style approach to avoidance. Levels constantly shift, raising walls, buildings, mystic pillars or firing lava bombs at you. Sometimes shooting becomes secondary to just survival and that’s key because of the way how shooting works. It takes a Rez style where you can press and hold a crosshair and lock on to up to a set amount of enemies and then let rip when you release the button. Bigger chains give bigger points and better rankings but of course, there’s more danger on screen. When power ups or upgrades do occur, the useful one is to increase your maximum lock count which is a handy addition. This is especially true in boss battles where you’ll want to get a barrage of fire in when the gaps in their attack patterns occur.
The game is very gymnastic – you’ll be flying everywhere – but it feels good to pilot. The low polygon retro arcade feel gives a true sense of speed and the soundtrack is an absolute riot of synthwave/synthrock. It gave me heavy Zuntata vibes which is no slight at all. Each level also looks and feels unique, borrowing from lots of different landscapes and eras, often leaping through several areas per level. Start of in an ancient Egyptian monument, end up in a volcano. The bosses are inspired by the 12 zodiac signs too, so naturally a giant crab with lazer shots and grabby claws is cancer for example. The theming works really well.
Currently, the game is half finished, with 6 levels available now. The full game with have 12 plus some bonus unlockable missions and routes. It plays and handles like a dream and takes me right back to my arcade park days as a teenager. Everything is here and fully realised, its just the content that needs to be complete. I do have one minor critique and that is I spent a bit too much time at the very edge of the screen, half off it. Maybe its my evasive playstyle but that might need a little balancing up. This very minor niggle aside, I’m excited to see the finished article, currently slated for 2023. A stunning solo dev project.
Review copy provided by developer.
A great start to Ex-Zodiac and if the full game matches or exceeds the current level set, the final score can only get higher. Arcade hedonism.
Fast, fluid graphics that look better in motion than in still life.
Aircraft feels nimble and easy to control - predictable.
Each level has a defined look, feel, sound and challenge.
Bosses are very gymnastic forcing you into thinking on your feet.
Occasionally spending too long on the edge of the screen if you play defensively like me!
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